Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Getting from HERE to THERE: New York 2140

Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.
– Samuel Delaney
As I began reading Kim Stanley Robin’s latest book, New York 2140, I was thinking about that old cliché:

Science fiction’s not about the future, it’s about the present.

But then isn’t all fiction like that? No matter when and where it’s set, it is necessarily about the authorial present, because that’s what the author lives, day in and day out. The rest is window dressing.

That’s what I was thinking. But I was also thinking that THAT’s not why I’m reading New York 2140, not at all. It’s about NYC after the climate apocalypse, and that’s why it interests me: How do we get through it? How do we live afterward? Not, mind you, that I think KSR actually knows, not, mind you, that I somehow think KSR is a prophet. He isn’t (a prophet) and he doesn’t (know the future). But he’s a smart guy with a good imagination and really, that’s the best we can do under the circumstances, no?

And I kept thinking that as I read the book. It’s as though I was almost looking for a how-to-do-it book. I say “almost” because when you put it that baldly it seems silly and I wasn’t really thinking that. But sorta, kinda’, almost.

As I read through the book – which is both complex (lots of interacting characters) and simple (little in the say of intricate scheming, but some) – I read about the financial collapse of 2008. That’s something very real to me, as it depressed my $$ net worth and hence my wellbeing. Hurricane Sandy – again, very real, I was without power for four or five days (I forget which), but others were without power for two or more weeks–not to mention flooding and homes destroyed, and the effects ripple out from there. They’re still rippling.

By the time I got to the end I was telling myself, whoa! this isn’t about the future, it’s about the present! Financial collapse, massive debilitating storm crushing New York City, those may well happen in the future, but I’ve already lived through them. And as for a spontaneous uprising of people in protest, that’s Occupy Wall Street: I marched in that!

Trapped by a cliché!

But just what is THE PRESENT? That’s a very tricky question.

What time scale do we use to measure the present? There’s a body of research in psychology that pegs the perceptual present at about three to four seconds. That’s certainly not the appropriate scale. But what is? A year, a decade, a century? There’s a reasonable sense in which the financial crash of 2008 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 are nonetheless part of my present. They’re certainly in the time horizon Stanley invokes/evokes in his book. And, if I’m going to extend my present a decade into the past, then perhaps I can also extend it a decade into the future, call it 2030. That’s still over a century short of Robinson’s D-Days. But then climate change looms large in his imagination and surely we can push that back to the beginning of the carbon-spewing Industrial Revolution. Now we’re going two centuries back to the beginning of the 19th century, and that entitles us to push two centuries into the future, to the end of the 22nd century. Our imaginative present, Robinson’s novelistic present? now runs roughly from 1800 to 2200, leaving him a little wiggle room after the imaginary events he’s detailed for us.

In his penultimate chapter, attributed merely to ‘the citizen’–who functions a bit like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action–he tells us:
Every moment is a wicked struggle of political forces, so even as the intertidal emerges from the surf like Venus, capitalism will be flattening itself like the octopus it biomimics, sliding between the glass walls of law that try to keep it contained, and no one should be surprised to find it can squeeze itself to the width of its beak, the only part of it that it can’t squish flatter, the hard part that tears our flesh when it is free to do so. No, the glass walls of justice will have to be placed together closer than the width of an octopus’s beak–now there’s a fortune cookie for you! And even then the octopus may think of some new ways to bite the world. A hinged beak, some super suckers, who knows what these people will try.
For you see, capitalism had just suffered a crushing defeat. But the book’s gone on for 604 pages at this point, so it really must come to an end – though I note that KSR’s Mars adventure extended over three volumes. But we mustn’t think that the end of the book is also the end of the causal forces it cast into wicked struggle.
So no, no, no, no! Don’t be naïve! There are no happy endings! Because there are no endings! And possibly there is no happiness either!
Though there a few more sentences in this chapter and then, yes, there's one final chapter. It takes place in “some submarine speakeasy” called “Mezzrow’s” – named, we presume, after a mid-20th century jazz musician and scenester who hung with the cats and supplied them with joints (aka mezzes) – where we dance to West African rhythms.

And the take-home? The lesson, what does it tell us about, I suppose, radical historical change? That’s tricky. Perhaps I should write another post about that. Or perhaps not. Whatever it is, it would be about chance favoring the prepared mind and how in this case, in KSR’s New York City and the world of 2140, there were lots of minds prepared by decades upon decades of subservience to the 1% (which, we know, is actually a tiny fraction of the 1%) in which 100s of millions managed to eek out a more or less self-sufficient existence in the tidal boondocks created by massive coastal flooding.

• • • • • S P O I L E R • • • • •

                                                                                                                           Not so long after the storm hit, displacing millions of New Yorkers, the message went out and a massive world-wide rent and mortgage strike brought capitalism to its knees.

For awhile.


  1. Great reflections in these two posts.

    It's an impressive attempt to imagine a future without dystopia.

    1. Thanks, Bryan, that's what I thought. And I think that's important. If we're to work effectively for a better world, we need hope for the future. Fiction is one way of creating and sustaining that hope.

  2. It is, and is struggling in that attempt now.

    I find in my work that I have to make a point of encouraging hope and positive visions.

    1. Leonard Sagan, Health of Nations (Basic Books 1987, p. 184):

      The history of rapid health gains in the United States is not unique; the rate at which death rates have fallen is even more rapid in more recently modernizing countries. The usual explanations for this dramatic improvement—better medical care, nutrition, or clean water—provide only partial answers. More important in explaining the decline in death worldwide is the rise of hope ... [through] the introduction of the transistor radio and television, bringing into the huts and shanties of the world the message that progress is possible, that each individual is unique and of value, and that science and technology can provide the opportunity for fulfillment of these hopes. [emphasis mine, BB]

  3. Reminds me of the old "revolution of rising expectations" idea.